Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in New Delhi yesterday to what Indian observers described as one of the biggest, best-prepared, and most security-conscious welcomes in the last decade. Hundreds of thousands of people lined a seven-mile drive into the capital from New Delhi's main military air base. Government sources were quoted by the Indian press as hoping for a turnout of 400,000. They may have achieved their target.
To do this, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's Congress (I) Party and the pro-Moscow Communist Party of India mobilized their grass-roots political machinery. Many of those lining the streets had been bused into the capital from neighboring states; several thousand buses were reportedly laid on for the operation. Schools were closed day.
The massive turnout officials say was a reflection of Mr. Gandhi's own enthusiasm for the visit. ``Rajiv is keen to show that he is not about to swing toward the United States,'' the senior official said.
In fact, in opening remarks at the first round of talks today, Gandhi said that the present visit would in his view be a ``turning point in the further strengthening of Indo-Soviet relations.''
The two leaders spent more than three hours yesterday in one-on-one discussions. An Indian government spokesman would say only that the two men had concentrated on the international situation, including a ``detailed assessment'' by Mr. Gorbachev on his talks in Reykjavik, Iceland, last month with President Reagan.
Before the talks started, Indian officials said that they were most interested in discussing regional problems.
``The core interest in the Indo-Soviet relationship is inevitably strategic,'' one senior Indian official said. ``We're really feeling hemmed in at the moment.''
This feeling comes largely from the renewed strain in relations with Pakistan, and thus indirectly with the United States. Earlier this year, the US Congress approved a six-year program for economic and military aid to Pakistan worth $4.02 billion.
Pakistan's interest in acquiring AWACs (airborne warning and control system) aircraft from the US has further strained relations.
``But if Pakistan gets AWACs,'' an Indian official said, ``we'll probably look for something from Moscow to redress the balance.''
New Delhi will in fact be receiving some very sophisticated military hardware from Moscow next month - a so-far unspecified number of MIG-29 fighters. India will be the first country to obtain the planes: Moscow has not made them available even to its Warsaw Pact allies. And, as with previous defense agreements, Moscow will not only be selling the planes but transferring their technology. Indian officials say that the MIGs will eventually be built under license here. India already produces other Soviet war planes and the Soviet T-72 battle tank under a similar arrangement.
The purchase terms, moreover, are probably very good. A defense agreement signed with Moscow in 1980 provided for credit to be provided at 2.5 percent interest, with a two-year grace period and 15 years to repay.
Although Soviet officials had previously said that defense would not figure high on the agenda here, Sergei Akhromeyev, the Soviet chief of general staff, has accompanied Gorbachev to India. Marshal Akhromeyev is scheduled to confer with the Indian minister of state for defense later this week.
Commenting on both the diplomatic and military aspects of the relationship, one very Westernized Indian official pointed to the paradox at the heart of the Indian-Soviet friendship.
``Emotionally, we're very oriented to the West,'' he said. ``There's hardly a family in the country which does not have a relative in either Britain or the United States.''
But British prestige has waned, and relations with the US are mediocre, he said. The Soviets, on the other hand, have proved ``reliable and consistent allies.''
And now, he added, they are shedding some of their bureaucratic sluggishness and are proving themselves to be ``prompt and sensitive to our defense needs. Essentially they seem ready to give us anything we ask for.''
The Associated Press reports from New Delhi: Gorbachev and Gandhi joined yesterday in blaming Mr. Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars'') for obstructing progress toward a nuclear-free world.
Gorbachev, who arrived yesterday on a four-day visit, was hailed by Gandhi as a ``crusader for peace.''
In a banquet speech, Gorbachev said his October summit with President Reagan in Iceland ``brought into sharp focus both the potential for progress toward a nuclear-free world and the obstacles and forces that block that progress.''
The talks broke down over Reagan's refusal to accept the Soviet demand that SDI not be tested outside the laboratory.